What Might Real Reform Look Like?
And What is Stopping It?
None of the various Prime Ministerial initiatives have helped the Government avoid making serious blunders. One is therefore forced to conclude that serious reform of the government machine might be necessary. There are, broadly, three possible approaches.
The first approach - the politicisation of the upper reaches of the civil service - would ensure that Ministers are supported by officials who share their political agenda and are energetic in taking it forward. The British Civil Service is now the only major Civil Service in the developed world to remain wholly unpoliticised in its upper reaches. Others sometimes claim to be, but no longer are. New appointments in these countries do not always clearly follow from party allegiance, but they reflect Ministerial preference and thus personal and political rather than constitutional and institutional loyalty. The Canadian system is the nearest to that of the UK, but the Canadian equivalents of British Permanent Secretaries are appointed by their Ministers, although appointments seem to be made on merit and incumbents are often reappointed when Governments change following election defeats. In Australia, the equivalent appointments are clearly political. And in the American system, most of its top three layers change every four or eight years to make way for new Presidential appointments.
But any move in the direction of politicisation meets determined opposition in the UK, and is not helped by the fact that politicians are currently so unpopular. Serious politicisation therefore appears to be a non-starter, for the time being at least. But those interested in this subject might like to read:-
- a 2002 note on the Politicisation of the Civil Service by Sir Robin Mountfield, then Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office - and
- a note of a Public Administration Committee conference in October 2003.
The second approach would be a new constitutional settlement - in which the relationship between civil servants and Ministers is supposed to be one of mutual interdependence, with Ministers providing authority and officials providing expertise, and 'speaking truth unto power'. Ministers would in future no longer be held to account for the wide range of expertise-based decisions which are now taken by government. Instead, there would be explicit recognition that Ministers are responsible and accountable only for establishing the Government’s strategy (with some support from a small ‘cabinet’ including relevant experts, a few civil servants and others with relevant skills) whilst the civil service is responsible and accountable for providing advice, consultation, communication and execution.
The third approach would be more incremental – but would still address a good number of far-reaching questions, including the following:
- How should departmental officials best be organised and remunerated?
- What is the right balance between cost and service quality in terms of both the service provided by 'Whitehall' to Ministers and the service provided by the wider (and much larger) Civil Service to the public?
- How much freedom should officials have to innovate and respond to local needs?
- Do we still need a single 'Civil Service' as distinct from a number of singular departmental administrations?
- Or, looking the other way, do we still need a single Civil Service comprising less than 10% of, and quite separate from, the rest of the public service?
- Is the Cabinet Secretariat (created in 1916) still fit for purpose nearly 100 years later?
- Have we nothing to learn from overseas administrations?
So What Stops these Reforms from Happening?
The first approach (politicisation) has very few strong supporters. UK politicians seem to need more robust advisers, not more committed political soul mates. Indeed, even the current tiny number of Special Advisers is regarded with considerable suspicion by many commentators. But Ministers are being allowed to strengthen their Private Offices by creating Extended Ministerial Offices with a small number of outside experts and others.
The second approach (a new constitutional settlement) has significant support, not least from the Public Accounts Committee and the Liaison Committee, but powerful opposition from the following groups within the Whitehall establishment.
• Opposition politicians want to retain the ability to gain political advantage by criticising Government Ministers rather than unelected officials.
• Government Ministers are unwilling to admit that they are not solely responsible for important decisions.
• MPs want to be able to continue to write to fellow MPs (currently serving as Ministers) about all aspects of a department’s performance. (A small number refuse even to correspond with Agency Chief Executives, for instance about the Driver and Vehicle Licensing decisions.)
• Last, but not least, many senior officials would not like to be publicly accountability for the effectiveness of their departments, knowing that this would open up areas of conflict with their political masters.
The third approach (the various interesting questions) suffers from lack of profile. Nobody – least of all anyone in a hard-pressed coalition government – has the time or energy to investigate these questions, nor the inclination to stir a nest full of hornets who would be devoted to maintaining the status quo. ... A pity, really.